8 April 2008
Asheville, N.C. endorses
new Wi-Fi business model
ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- A proposal to make Asheville a "Wi-Fi City" -- via
city-wide, wireless Internet access -- won unanimous endorsement March 25
from the Asheville City Council.
The plan, put forth by the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network
(MAIN), would provide secure wireless coverage -- including mobile access --
throughout the city.
"I'm pleased that the City of Asheville has officially endorsed MAIN's
'Wi-Fi City' proposal" said Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy. "This effort will
not only help bridge the Digital Divide in our community. It also signals to
the nation that Asheville has a 21st-century vision for an inclusive and
sustainable Digital Economy."
The network buildout will have a special focus on underserved
neighborhoods, said Wally Bowen, MAIN's executive director.
MAIN's "Wi-Fi City" network employs a low-power wireless technology called
"mesh" that's well-suited for residential neighborhoods, Bowen said. MAIN's
mesh network is already operating in parts of nine Asheville
Most free Wi-Fi "hot spots" are not secure and can't be used for
confidential business, legal, and medical data, Bowen said. By contrast,
MAIN's wireless service is secure and monitored around-the-clock to ensure
Local agencies and businesses offering in-home services have cited a
growing need for secure and mobile broadband access.
Councilman Bill Russell agreed that small business-owners would benefit
from secure, mobile Internet access. "I think it's fantastic. I see nothing
but good can come from it," he said.
Lois Clement, technology director for the Asheville City Schools, said
MAIN's proposal coincides with the school system's push for expanded access
to information technology.
She called the wireless network "a huge opportunity that we re very
excited about." She said 21st-century technology "extends learning beyond the
school walls, and we need community support like this to make it happen. We
can't do it alone."
Terry O'Keefe, a local technology consultant, cited the advantages of a
locally accountable nonprofit network. "This network is an asset that belongs
to this community in a way that no other technology infrastructure can be
said to belong," O'Keefe said.
He predicted that MAIN's wireless infrastructure will support future
applications "that we can't even imagine today."
Bowen noted that state regulatory
changes in 2006 eliminated rules for upgrading cable and telephone networks
in low-wealth neighborhoods, portending a worsening Digital Divide in North
"More of our residents enjoy the benefits of high-speed Internet access, but
a broadband Digital Divide persists in our low-wealth neighborhoods," said
Bowen, citing data from a 2007 Pew Internet and
American Life survey.
While 47 percent of adult Americans reported broadband Internet access at
home in 2007, the Pew survey found that only 30 percent of Americans with
incomes under $30,000 had broadband access at home. Only 15 percent of
Americans over 65 reported broadband at home.
"This data clearly shows that our most vulnerable citizens -- our
lower-income young and old -- don't have access to the health, education and
economic benefits of broadband Internet," Bowen said. Many experts believed
that municipal wireless networks would help bridge the broadband Digital Divide and
create a "third pipe" alternative to the cable and telephone companies
control of the Internet.
Bowen predicted that MAIN's nonprofit model will be seen as an attractive
alternative to muncipally-owned networks, which have had mixed
Operating in the tradition of rural telephone and electric cooperatives,
nonprofit wireless networks are less vulnerable to shifting political winds
and inadequate local government staffing, he said.
He added that Asheville is also unique in being home to two complementary
nonprofit networks: ERC Broadband, a
fiber-based network serving local industry and government agencies; and MAIN,
which has provided affordable "last mile" access to homes and businesses in
western North Carolina since 1996.
Access to nonprofit fiber infrastructure ensures that MAIN's "Wi-Fi City"
network will always have plentiful and affordable bandwidth for
state-of-the-art services, Bowen said. END
The nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network was originally funded in
1996 by a U.S. Department of Commerce grant to provide dial-up Internet
access in 12 mountain counties, at a time when most rural residents had to call
long-distance to get online. In 1997, MAIN and its original fiscal agent, Land
of Sky Regional Council, received the Innovation Award from the National
Association of Development Organizations (NADO) in Washington, D.C.
MAIN also provided the first public Internet access in libraries and
community centers across the mountain region. MAIN continues to provide free
or reduced-fee access to more than 400 citizens with disabilities via
partnerships with area independent-living agencies.
In 2002, MAIN was awarded a grant from the N.C. Rural Internet Access
Authority to provide broadband wireless in Madison, Yancey and Mitchell
counties. MAIN extended its service to Asheville and Buncombe County in 2005.
For more information, visit: www.main.nc.us. END